BETHESDA, Md. – Consider this a runaway winner for the double-take Tuesday award. No, not the NCAA’s languid march to a BCS playoff format, the real stunner came just after lunch when Tiger Woods revealed that he has tinkered with a long putter.
“I tried it and my stroke is infinitely worse,” he admitted during a 25-minute Q&A with media types at Congressional Country Club.
Given how this week’s host with the most putted at the U.S. Open one can only imagine how bad things were with a non-standard length putter, but the revelation does give a snapshot of Woods’ psyche.
For the man who plays one of the softest golf balls on the PGA Tour – because touch, not distance, is crucial – and who has historically been averse to impromptu equipment changes to experiment with a long putter (which is rumored to be on the endangered species list among the game’s rule makers), suggests that he is not blind to the elephant in the room.
Had he managed even an average putting round on Saturday at The Olympic Club, Sunday’s outcome could have played out much differently. Instead, Woods struggled to a 34-putt 75 and began the final turn five strokes back and in need of a Sunday rally that never materialized.
For the record, Woods is now 0-for-12 at the Grand Slam table since the 2008 U.S. Open, the longest major drought of his career and a reason for many to begin a familiar drumbeat.
When Woods warmed up for his third round at Olympic Club, Sean Foley was not around, leading some in the media to speculate that the former alpha male was putting some distance between himself and his swing coach. That Saturday 75 in San Francisco only exaggerated the speculation.
But those who attempt to read Tiger tealeaves appear to be mired in the wrong debate. Those who wish to split hairs digesting the statistics are adrift in ambiguity. These are the facts: Woods is ninth in greens in regulation, second in total driving and ball-striking and ninth in the all-around ranking, near career best averages in all three categories.
“I mean, he's fourth in total driving,” Hunter Mahan said earlier this season. “Whoever thought Tiger Woods would be fourth in total driving? Someone needs to check hell because it might have frozen over.”
Those who dissect Woods’ performance from or to particular distances have been blinded by minutia. This is about putting, not proximity or some other arcane measurement. Similarly, it seems the road that Woods and Foley embarked on wasn’t about building a better swing so much as it was forging a future on a knee with precious little shelf life.
Of all the criticism leveled at Hank Haney it seems the only trust the former swing coach violated was the “do no harm” clause. Competitively Woods’ record with Haney is beyond reproach, but Haney’s attempts to alleviate or mitigate the damage to Woods’ leading knee during that explosive golf swing now appear to have been unsuccessful.
Since 2007, Woods has played more than 12 events in a single season just once and this week’s AT&T National marks the first time he has returned to Congressional since winning the event in 2009, missing the 2011 U.S. Open in the nation’s capital and the AT&T stop with injury.
By comparison, this week’s AT&T National will be his 11th worldwide start this season and if he can avoid another trip to the MRI machine he will finish 2012 with upwards of 20 Tour starts, the most since 2005.
Lost amid the clutter of endless analysis is the two-fold reality that had Woods not changed directions with his swing the debate about whether or not he will ever reach Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 major championship may have already been decided by scar tissue and the surgeon’s scalpel. That he’s statistically as sound now as he’s been in years only fuels the reality that he made the right choice.
“I didn't want to play the way I did because it hurt, and it hurt a lot,” Woods said. “Was I good at it? Yeah, I was good at it, but I couldn't go down that road, and there's no way I could have had longevity in the game if I would have done that.
Four knee surgeries later, here we are. I finally have a swing that it doesn't hurt, and I am still generating power, but it doesn't hurt anymore.”
On Tuesday at Congressional, Woods suggested that although his short game has suffered in recent months, the byproduct of increased attention on his full swing much like he encountered when he first began working with Haney and Butch Harmon, he said he now has the time to fix it.
Time, you see, may finally be on his side.